Iowa defense points to its slow start as reason Michigan won

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — You couldn’t tell Iowa’s defensive players Saturday that they deserved a better fate.

They may have come into the Big House and more than held their own in a bare-knuckle old-school Big Ten Conference bruise-fest. They may have held the No. 18 team in the country scoreless for the final 53 minutes.

But it was still a 10-3 loss for No. 14 Iowa, and the defense was ready to accept its share of the blame.

“We started a little late. If we’d started earlier, the game is ours,” defensive end Chauncey Golston said after recording a career-high eight tackles and his first sack of the season. “We didn’t back down. We played with the edge that we needed. We’ve just got to start faster.”

Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) allowed a single scoring drive to the Wolverines (4-1, 2-1). That was fueled by Michigan’s lone explosive play.

And, thanks to a Hawkeye offense that never found its rhythm, that was enough to lose the game.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley (4) was under pressure all day against Michigan.

Iowa entered the game ranked third in the nation in scoring defense (8.5 points per game) and fifth in overall defense (251 yards per game). The Hawkeyes backed those numbers up against a Wolverine attack that became less effective as the game wore on.

Michigan gained 14 yards on its first possession before punting for the first of eight times.

But the Hawkeye defense was quickly back on the field, backed up against its goal line, after Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent lost a fumble at his 18-yard line on the opening play. Three plays netted eight Wolverine yards and they had to settle for a short field goal.

That was a win for the Iowa defense.

After a Hawkeye three-and-out, Michigan senior quarterback Shea Patterson struck for 51 yards on first down, finding Nico Collins in the middle of the field in single coverage by Iowa redshirt freshman cornerback D.J. Johnson. The coverage was solid. The pass and catch were perfect.

Michigan eventually cashed that in with a 2-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet. It was the first score on the ground the Hawkeyes had allowed this year.

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins is tackles by Iowa defensive back Michael Ojemudia during the second half of U-M's 10-3 win on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Michigan Stadium.

And the last gain of any significance that Michigan would have on this afternoon. The Wolverines ventured deep into Iowa territory only once more, missing on a fourth-quarter field-goal attempt from 34 yards.

“We’re 59 minutes in to the game, we have a chance to tie it or take the lead,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s because of the defense.”

Iowa limited Michigan to 267 yards and 3 of 13 third-down conversions.

The Hawkeyes also have playmakers on defense. Safety Geno Stone backpedaled to intercept Patterson in the first quarter, later broke up another pass and raced past three Michigan blockers to stop Charbonnet in his tracks to force a second-quarter punt.

“He’s one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten,” Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said of Stone. “He’s, I guess, an undersized safety. He plays for Iowa. People view that as just like, ‘Oh, it’s just Iowa and that’s just another 5-foot-10 guy on their team. What makes him different?’ But Geno’s love for the game, his passion and his effort that he gives every single day is something unique. He flies around. He’s not afraid to throw his body and make plays.”

Epenesa, a preseason all-American, is another playmaker, and his sack of Patterson almost turned the game around. For the first time this season, he was facing a single blocker on most snaps.

In the second quarter, Epenesa roared around the left side of the Michigan offensive line and had an unsuspecting Patterson in his sights at the Michigan 6-yard line, hitting him from behind and momentarily jarring the football loose. Patterson fell on top of the ball. The Wolverines fumbled on two other occasions, but were able to recover.

Iowa forced just the one turnover and finished with two sacks. Golston had another two quarterback hurries. Patterson completed only 14-of-26 passes for 147 yards. But 61 of those came in the first quarter.

“They put the ball on the ground quite a few times,” Golston said. “We’ve got to come up with those.”

That’s a defense looking for perfection. It’s a mindset that Iowa will have to adopt this week as well, with No. 11 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) coming to Kinnick Stadium for a 6:30 p.m. Saturday game to be shown nationally on ABC. The Nittany Lions are averaging 500 yards and 47 points per game. They have beaten Iowa in each of the past three seasons.

The Hawkeye defense is eager for the challenge.

“What are you playing this game for,” Golston wondered, “if you’re not trying to compete with the best?”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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